You can’t go wrong with the latest and greatest iPhone, but you can also do quite well and save a few bucks with last year’s model that does just about everything the iPhone 5 has to offer.

That’s not to say that the new iPhone isn’t different.  It is. It has a new longer screen and supports the remarkably fast LTE 4G data speeds on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon networks. 

Cosmestic Changes
Apple prides itself on groundbreaking industrial design, and the new phone clearly shows the company still focuses very heavily on product look and feel. Apple managed to make this new phone thinner than last year’s model, and also dramatically reduced the weight. On paper those changes are marginal but in the hand they are very noticeable. The longer screen does not come at the cost of a larger phone, with this new model just a few centimeters longer than the iPhone 4/4S.

Larger Screen
Most competing phones now have screens that are both wider and longer than Apple’s offerings to date. Apple approached the problem differently, looking at how to make a larger screen that can still allow the user to operate the phone one handed. The result is a stretched screen that operates at the same resolution as the iPhone 4/4S retina display but adds additional real estate. The small addition actually does make a difference with less scrolling required in mail applications as well as the ability to see more than one line of appointments when viewing the calendar in month mode.

Apps that don’t yet support the larger screen are now displayed “letter boxed” and centered in the display. On the black iPhone 5 the screen matches the bezel and the black bars that appear above and below the app are for the most part invisible. They may be more noticeable on the white iPhone.

LTE Data
In testing, the speed of Verizon’s LTE network is remarkable. From my office in Essex I was able to benchmark a downstream speed of 36 megabits per second and 14 megabits upstream. This is cable modem class data speeds that are immediately noticeable on the new device. In some ways, however, it’s like having a Ferrari with only a half a block of road to drive it on. Most carriers limit data consumption to 2-4 gigabytes a month, and at the speeds I’m testing that could easily be chewed up in about 20-30 minutes of full speed downloading. So don’t plan to watch Netflix or download movies via the speedy connection.

AT&T and Sprint are rolling out LTE networks in Connecticut as well, but Verizon is farther ahead in their build out at the moment. It’s important to note that AT&T is now displaying “4G” on iPhone 4S models, but the data speeds achieved are nowhere near that of true 4G LTE transfer rates. While AT&T’s data speed is faster on the 4S than it is on Verizon, this 4G statement is a bit misleading.

New Lightning Connector Makes All Your Accessories Obsolete
For over ten years Apple has used the same 30 pin dock connector on all of their iPods, iPhones, and iPads. The result is a decade of accessories like car connection kits and speaker docks that have worked from one device to the next. Until now, that is. In order to cram all of the hardware the new phone requires to operate, Apple has changed the connector to a much smaller “lightning” connector that uses an entirely new cable design. The advantage, beyond its size, is that it is less prone to damage and that the cable can be plugged in ‘upside down’ and still work. The disadvantage is that it lacks the ability to connect to all of those accessories you undoubtedly own without a $30 adapter which is not yet available on Apple’s website (that comes out in a week or two).

The new adapter is so expensive because it has some circuitry in it to emulate the old functionality on the new all digital connector. This also makes the possibility of lower cost third party adapters unlikely.

Should you upgrade?
If the larger screen and faster data rates aren’t compelling to you, than an upgrade from the iPhone 4S is likely not necessary at this point.  The new phone does have some under the hood improvements in performance but the things that most consumers expect from their phone largely haven’t changed. Even the jump from the iPhone 4 to the 4S resulted in a significantly improved camera, much faster processor, and of course Siri and voice dictation features.  While the iPhone 5 does have more memory for background tasks and a faster processor, its performance advantage over the already fast 4S is not as noticeable with the current crop of software. Battery life is about the same as well, although the 5 has more power hungry radios onboard.

For users of the 4S: if you’re not in need of the faster LTE data connection and are happy with the screen size as-is there’s no compelling reason to upgrade this time around.

Users of the iPhone 4 and prior models: You will find a lot to like in the new phone as it is an improvement over the 4 and a dramatic upgrade for older models. But the 5 is in short supply, and costs $100 more than the 4S which is now priced at a very competitive $99 (with contract) on all compatible carriers.

Apple has certainly differentiated itself in the consumer electronics space as a premium brand. This new phone keeps that high quality industrial design consumers have come to expect but also speaks to how quickly the smartphone market has matured since the iPhone changed the industry just five years ago. There really isn’t much more that can be crammed into a phone at this point that is a “must have” feature, so we likely will see refinements moving forward rather than groundbreaking new features.

The iPhone 5 is a great product, but so is the model it replaces at the top of Apple’s product offering.